New school features personal attention, real-life experience

Geoff Mulvihill
December 26, 2005

On a recent Thursday morning, the staff at the new Met East High School was delighted that most of their students were not in the building. But that wasn't because the kids had the day off.
Most of the school's 42 students - all ninth-graders - were doing internships at places ranging from law offices to funeral homes. Getting out into the community is a key element of the school, New Jersey's first in a national network of so-called Big Picture schools.
Even on the three days a week when most students are in the building, Met East works nothing like most high schools. Textbooks are rarely used. Students don't take tests and don't get letter grades. Instead, they're supposed to follow their passions and learn on their own, with guidance from teachers who have time for each of them.
Fifteen-year-old Janae Langston said she chose Met East because she craved individual attention after the distractions of her middle-school experience. "You'd have to stop because the teachers couldn't control everybody," she said.
The concept, being tried in New Jersey's poorest city and one where the public schools have long struggled, is a more radical form of something that more districts are embracing: Offering smaller, more specialized environments than typically massive high schools.
A handful of high schools across the state have tried similar, if less drastic, changes in recent years. Camden, for example, already has high schools specializing in creative and performing arts and in health care. Earlier this year, the state Education Department asked all 31 of New Jersey's poor districts, which get extra attention and money from the state, to look into the creating smaller learning communities.
Penelope E. Lattimer, chief of staff at the Education Department, said students do better at smaller schools because they're more likely to work hard when they believe teachers are really looking after them. And teachers who get to know them better can provide more help.
"We're looking for students to be challenged more, which is what students say they are looking for in secondary schools," Lattimer said.
Met East is certainly challenging - but in unconventional ways.
Gerry Baker, whose daughter, Deborah, attends Met East, said it's hard to figure out whether she always is doing what she's supposed to do, though she seems to be getting plenty out of the school.
"I don't see a chemistry book. I don't see an algebra book," Baker said. "Are they really learning?"
Later in high school, the Met East students will have to prove that they are learning. The students - picked for the school through a lottery - will have to pass the same standardized tests that New Jersey requires for graduation from other schools. That means that through their unusual form of study, they're going to have to learn the same things that students in regular schools have to learn.
It's just that the process is completely different.
Called "advisers" rather than teachers, the instructors do give some assignments - such as a recent math research project asking students to do reports on how they would spend every penny of $10 million in 10 days. But they don't give conventional, daily homework.
The advisers meet one-on-one with each student for at least 30 minutes each week to talk about life, what the students are learning at their internships, and the journal-writing and independent reading they're required to do.
Students who want to know something beyond their advisers' areas of expertise are encouraged to find experts: other advisers, mentors from their internships or anyone else.
The school days are not broken rigidly into periods for subjects such as biology and English. Instead, students are expected to schedule their own time, detailing down to the minute when they'll be working on group projects and when they'll be reading, for example. As students progress through the school - with the same class of 10 to 12 students and the same adviser each year - they'll design even more of their own lessons.
And they don't take tests. Instead, four times a year, students are slated to give 45-minute talks to panels that include parents, school staff and some members of the community. During the presentations, students explain what they have learned and what they plan to work on during the next part of the year. Additionally, students write essays about their progress - and so do their advisers.
The Big Picture way has been fine-tuned for nearly a decade since the first school opened in 1996 in Providence, R.I., with support from several big-name charities, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There are now 27 of the schools across the country, most of them in inner-cities. Some, like Camden's, function as part of regular public school districts, while most are charter schools.
The schools send nearly every one of their graduates to college.
In Camden, it's far too soon to tell whether that will happen. But in a city where the two big high schools have been plagued by violence and are trying to combat high dropout rates, Met East has an attendance rate close to 95 percent and students say there haven't been even little scuffles.
The discipline problems at Met East are far different than the other schools in the city.
Adviser Jennifer Ghidiu said once, when students were supposed to be reading books, she found student Mariah Coleman in front of a classroom computer.
But Coleman wasn't goofing off. She was simply